Susan Orlean on Watching Adaptation With Her 15-Year-Old Son

“He said to me, in a very plaintive voice, ‘So, is it true?’ ”

Susan Orlean side by side with the fictional "Susan Orlean" played by Meryl Streep in Adaptation.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Frank O’Brien/the Boston Globe via Getty Images and Columbia Pictures.

Susan Orlean, the beloved New Yorker staff writer and author of many books, recently declared on Twitter that she was about to watch Adaptation with her 15-year-old son. You may recall that in the 2002 movie, a character named “Susan Orlean” (Meryl Streep) writes a book called The Orchid Thief (as the real Orlean did), and then has an affair with the thief in Florida, poses nude for his pornographic website, snorts an enormous amount of orchid powder, and attempts to murder a Hollywood screenwriter (as the real Orlean decidedly did not). In 2012, Orlean said that when she first got sent the so-called adaptation of her book, she replied, “Absolutely not!” As she explained to GQ, “They had to get my permission and I just said: ‘No! Are you kidding? This is going to ruin my career!’ ” But she eventually came around: “They told me that everybody else had agreed and I somehow got emboldened. It was certainly scary to see the movie for the first time. It took a while for me to get over the idea that I had been insane to agree to it, but I love the movie now.”

Cut to 2020, and Susan Orlean’s teenage son wanted to see “Susan Orlean” in Adaptation. She got emboldened again. When it was over, she tweeted her son’s response: “Mom, we have to talk.” I called Orlean this week to ask what he wanted to know—and whether her fictional self still follows her around. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Slate: Why on earth did this happen?   

Susan Orlean: Well, actually, it’s kind of funny, because I didn’t make the decision. I’m sure at various times I have suggested to my son that he should read The Orchid Thief, which he’s exhibited no interest in doing. And I figured, First, have him read the book, then he can see the movie. In any case, out of the blue the other night, my husband said, “So, we’re going to watch—Austin and I have decided we’re going to watch Adaptation tonight.” And I said, “Oh, OK. Cool … I’ll watch with you.” So it was an involuntary commitment rather than one that I sought out purposefully. And it also did kind of undercut my theory that the movie—It would be better for him to read the book first so he could put the movie in context. It didn’t work that way.

What was your main worry about watching it with him?

Lots of things. First of all, I thought it would be pretty bizarre just to see your mother as a character in the movie—even if it were a completely straightforward, un-weird movie, I think. He’s certainly old enough to handle it, but I always thought, God, that would be pretty strange. But more significantly, the fact that the movie about halfway through heads off into fictional territory, that would be a little bit unhinging for a teenager if he began thinking that it was true. I figured that would be a little much.

See, I was thinking of the scene when Charlie [the screenwriter] becomes obsessed with “Susan,” and then he starts masturbating to her—

Yeah, that was probably the moment when I thought, I can’t believe I’m doing this. But I decided to watch with them just to kind of remind him that I was a normal person and that what he was viewing was fictional.

Did he know what to expect?

No, I didn’t say anything to him in advance. I mean, partly because I wanted him to enjoy the movie as a movie, and I didn’t want to sort of spoil it by saying, “Oh, by the way, it becomes this crazy Hollywood movie halfway through.” I thought, Oh, I want him to have the experience of watching this really cool movie, despite the fact that it might be super weird for him to see me in it as this character.

You tweeted afterward that when the movie was over, he said, “Mom, we need to talk.”

I said, “Yes, I know we need to talk.” He was on his way to bed, and then the next morning when we were up getting breakfast, he said to me, in a very plaintive voice, “So, is it true?” And I said, “The first part is true, but the second part is not.” I couldn’t tell if he was kidding when he said “Is it true?” or if he was actually, genuinely feeling me out, because it’s not only the absurd stuff—it’s the portrayal of this marriage that’s very unhappy. But that was my marriage to my ex-husband, not to his father, to whom I’m very happily married. So there was some of it that was weird more on a personal level, as opposed to “No, I have never appeared on a porn site,” “No, I’m not addicted to green orchid powder,” and even “No, I didn’t have an affair with somebody whom I was writing about.”

I was going to ask you about that. I just rewatched the movie not too long ago, and it’s funny how differently that plays to me now, the pernicious cliché of journalists sleeping with their sources.

Well, that was the thing that bothered me the most. I thought the really over-the-top stuff would be really obvious to people, that it was ridiculous, but the more subtle idea that I had an affair with someone I wrote about was something that made me more squeamish. Because it happens. It never happened to me. It never would. But it’s not as weird as the idea of me being on a porn site. People are going to of course know that that’s absurd. The affair was the thing that I was the most sensitive about, because I felt like it could be misinterpreted as being actually true.

Right, he probably doesn’t think that you’re a horny murderous drug pusher.

Right? Well, maybe—no, I think, yes, exactly.

I was remembering back to when the movie came out in 2002. I was 16, and it was rated R, so I couldn’t see it by myself. So I made my dad buy me a ticket to it and then leave. Austin is braver than I was. I remember being blown away. What did he think?

Well, he loved it. He thought it was a great movie, and I think he responded to the humor most powerfully. No particular scene, but especially the Nicolas Cage twins’ relationship, I think, he found really hilarious.

Do people still confuse you for the “Susan Orlean” in the movie?

There’s a lingering kind of sheepish curiosity that I encounter. It used to happen more, but people ask me very delicately what John Laroche is up to these days. I know the reason they’re asking me in this sheepish way. I think they think, oh, you know, he was my lover, so obviously we must be in touch. So that does still occur. Not as often as it used to, and it used to happen all the time.

Do you feel cocky that, in the game of “Who would play me in a movie?” you got Meryl Streep?

Yeah! Well, it had a lot to do with my willingness to dive into this insane venture because knowing that I was in her hands made me feel like, if nothing else, I knew it would be done in a classy way, and that it would lend the movie a kind of legitimacy that would make it something I’d be happy to be part of. I got lucky in that.